NEW HAVEN — The story of teenage adventure that Edwin loves to tell his little girl, Janice, comes from his own life: the time in the early 1950s when he and some friends sneaked into an all-white swimming pool in their Kansas hometown, and one of them dived in for a speedy lap.
“White folks scream and holler,” Edwin says, savoring the drama of a well-planned disruption. “Women scramble to get out while fellas jump in and try to get a hold of that beautiful, Black Aquaman!”
No one ever caught any of them, Edwin adds triumphantly — and the pool was “shut down for three whole days.”
“Why?” young Janice asks.
“Sanitization,” her father replies. “A Negro ‘infected’ the water, they said.”
Christina Anderson’s poetically titled new play, “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” lands a number of gut punches like that one. In Tamilla Woodard’s somewhat blunted production for Yale Repertory Theater, it spans decades to tell the story of one Black family’s tiny, Midwestern corner of the fight against racial segregation — both the kind that was once enforced by law and the slippery kind that came later, skulking around legality to maintain all-white preserves.
Janice’s mother, Helen, was raised a passionate swimmer. Her own father ran a program teaching Black children to swim, and as a teenager Helen took up teaching, too. A few years later, two 8-year-olds she had taught drowned with a white friend in a lake where they went to swim together.
This is the deeply felt tragedy that turns Helen (Chalia La Tour) and Edwin (Marcus Henderson) into local activists for pool integration and access. In a town that would rather close its pools than desegregate them — a Civil Rights-era practice called “drained-pool politics,” as a program note says — the cause consumes them for years. As a teenager in the 1970s, Janice (Jennean Farmer) comes to see it with some resentment as her parents’ battle, not hers. But the ripples of racism in American culture are inescapable.
Janice looks back on all this from 1992 Ohio, around the time that four white Los Angeles police officers are being tried in connection with the beating of the Black motorist Rodney King. (The play does not mention it, but 20 years later King will drown in his own swimming pool.)
The catalyst for Janice’s memories is an invitation — from the comically named Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman (an excellent Adrienne S. Wells, who doubles in the role of Janice’s Aunt Gayle) — to return to Kansas for the naming of a pool in her father’s honor. That rankles as an erasure of her mother; her parents did everything as a team.
A drama that is also about family and healing and home, “the ripple” cries out for a sense of intimacy that this production unfortunately lacks. It is foiled by slack pacing and Emmie Finckel’s vaulted set, which for all its visual appeal is a mismatch for the show. A thing of elegant beauty, beguilingly lit by Alan C. Edwards, it has a vastness that leaves the characters adrift, too far from us.
the ripple, the wave that carried me home
Through May 20 at Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, Conn.; yalerep.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.